Drag show performers headed to City Hall to protest end of Clematis Street 500 block parties
Updated: Apr 15
DRAG SHOW PERFORMERS are coming to West Palm Beach City Hall in a show of support for the 500 block of Clematis Street.
The performers, dressed in full drag, plan to attend the April 17 City Commission meeting along with merchants and supporters to ask officials to reconsider their decision to end the weekend street closures on the 500 block, organizers said.
Since early 2020, except during the pandemic, the block has been closed to vehicular traffic almost every weekend from 5 p.m. Friday to 11 p.m. Sunday, turning the street into a lively pedestrian-only thoroughfare with games, art vendors, outdoor dining, music and entertainment for visitors of all ages.
The weekend block parties have been a boon to bars and restaurants. They’ve also provided an important income source for the drag performers whose Friday night shows have grown into the weekends’ most popular entertainment.
That will end after the final weekend in April because the city has denied a request by downtown businessman Rodney Mayo to extend the permit from May to November.
Among the reasons the city cited in its April 3 denial: Prior 500 block closures had “created a burden on traffic, or neighborhood parking issues; or noise issues; or impacted city services; or resulted in multiple or excessive citizen complaints.’’
Mayo said the city had never complained to him about those issues in the previous three years it issued permits, leading many merchants and supporters to believe the permit denial was just the latest example of Mayor Keith James retaliating against Mayo for trying to challenge him in the recent municipal election.
The city in previous years did make more demands from Mayo for his permit. For example, it required him to pay for and post his own traffic signs (Mayo said they cost $18,000), which the city had provided and taken care of in the first years. And last year it added a requirement for him to hire off-duty police officers during the event for $55 an hour.
But the permit denial came as a surprise, since Mayo had accommodated every request by the city.
“It's plain as day (James) is canceling the permit because he is mad as hell and is having a ‘pissing contest’ with Rodney,’’ said Chris Rhoades, president of Next Level Talent PB, an agency representing drag performers.
Mayo, who owns several bars and restaurants in the 500 block, filed to run for mayor in November. But a judge disqualified him from the race in January after James filed a lawsuit challenging Mayo’s residency.
The ruling canceled the March election and automatically gave James, who has a history of bad blood with Mayo, a second four-year term unopposed.
On April 2, the mayor signed an order denying Mayo’s permit for Artist Alley, another public space next to two of Mayo’s 500 block businesses, a vegan restaurant called ‘Ve and Subculture Coffee. (Mayo, who had been leasing the space from the city, at times had used the alley for live-streamed campaign discussions.)
A later later, Mayo's permit request to extend the weekend 500 block closures through November was denied.
Mayo had been paying the city $950 a week for the street-closure permit and $200 a month for the Artist Alley lease.
Other merchants who benefited from the 500-block traffic closures said they’re angry about the city’s decision to pull the permit but did not want to be identified by name because of fear of retribution from James.
More than 1,000 signatures have been collected online calling on supporters to meet at Artist Alley at 4 p.m. on April 17 before walking to City Hall to attend the 5 p.m. City Commission meeting.
How many of those petition-signers are planning to attend the meeting is not known, but petition organizer Kristen Dagata said she is expecting at least 100.
Rhoades, whose agency books performers for the 500 block drag shows, said he has asked more than 40 drag performers around South Florida to attend. He said the three regular Friday night 500-block performers will attend, and there may be more.
And they won't be wearing off-stage street clothes to City Hall.
“I want them in full drag. They are going to stand out,’’ he said.
“I’m not going to go silently. I know what the repercussions could be for me, but here's the thing. It’s not just about me. It’s not just about the drag show. It’s about Friday night. It’s about Saturday night. It's about Sunday. It’s about a festival that attracts families and people of all walks of life.’’
Rhoades said he does not think the city’s permit denial is “an attack on LGBTQ community or the drag show itself, but it is affecting our community.’’
It comes at a time when state lawmakers are considering measures to crack down on lewd drag shows, including blocking children from attending. Tennessee recently became the first state to ban drag shows in public spaces, and other states are following suit with their own proposed restrictions.
The Clematis Street drag shows are not sexually explicit, said Rhoades, who said he and some of the drag performers he represents are planning to go to Tallahassee to protest the proposed legislation.
“They are shows that are filled with fun, comedic, powerful, moving messages with an assortment of songs ranging from Disney to Broadway to Britney to Whitney to Taylor Swift and everything in between. The shows are for all walks of life including kids,” he said.
Mayo started hosting drag shows seven years ago inside Camelot, his Narcissus Avenue club around the corner from the 100 block of Clematis Street, before moving the shows to two other sites he owns on the 500 block, Voltaire and Hullabaloo.
The 500 block traffic closures started as an experiment in 2019 before being temporarily shuttered by the pandemic. As the public adjusted to post-pandemic norms, the street closures came back and blossomed.
One adjustment, in 2021, was to move the drag shows from inside Hullabaloo to outside on a makeshift street stage Friday nights, where the performances have since attracted hundreds of visitors.
“We are presenting such a unique event in such a unique space where you can be straight, you can be gay, you can be whatever and sit and have delicious dinner (outside) Hullabaloo or Kapow and see an amazing drag show,’’ Rhoades said.
“It caters to everybody and the crowd is everybody. There are families. It’s a very unique dynamic because it does give such great exposure to and highlights the art of drag to people who (might otherwise) never see it.’’
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.